A number of readers have asked me about their relatives who were involved in Dutch escape lines during the war. So in this season when we think about our families, I offer to everyone the advice I’ve given to them.

First, please remember that I do not use anyone’s true name in this blog except John Henry Weidner’s. Every other name is a pseudonym (schuilnaam, nom de guerre). The stories in this blog are all true, but you cannot know that any one story is about your relative.

Second, it’s not easy to find traces of resisters in the archives. The good news is that 10 years ago it was well nigh impossible. Now you at least have a chance because of changes in archival laws and the establishment of new archives.

Third, the records are uneven, to say the least. There simply are no records for some people. This might be because they died during the war or because they refused to ever fill out any forms after the war. Ironically, there are almost no files on JH Weidner because he was so well known as a famous resister in 1944-1946. Some files have one sheet of paper with, say, a name and birth date. Other files have years’ of correspondence and gendarmerie reports. I once spent months getting permission to see a particular file, flew to France, took a train, rented a car, found an archive in the middle of nowhere and only then discovered that the file I had permission to see was essentially empty. Fortunately the other 31 archives I visited had more information than that.

Fourth, do not show up at any archive without first contacting an archivist there. You will probably need permission to see any files, which may take some time. Also, many archives are understaffed. The archivists are happy to help, but they need time to do it.

Having said all that, this is how you look for a relative in an archive. Begin with the person’s name and birth date.   You also need to know what country that person did his or her illegal work in. If your uncle was Dutch but spent the entire war in France, you need to look in both the Dutch and French archives.  But be aware that there’s a good chance that his name is misspelled in the French records or his file is under his wartime pseudonym rather than his real name.  So be flexible about the spelling.

Start with the archives of the bureaucracies that administered pensions and other benefits for resisters after the war. In the Netherlands it is the Stichting 1940-1945. In Belgium it is the DG Oorlogsslachtoffers, housed with CEGES/SOMA. In France it is the Service historique de la Défense, particularly the Bureau de la Résistance in Vincennes. Individuals had to prove that they deserved a Resistance pension, which means that there is probably a description of what that individual did, or names of people he or she worked with. However, if your relation did not apply for such a pension, there will not be a file on him or her.

If your relation was imprisoned and/or deported, you may find information at the following archives. For Dutch citizens, particularly those arrested in the Netherlands, check the archives of the Rode Kruis in Den Haag. For individuals arrested in France, you may find information in the BAVCC of the Service historique de la Défense in Caen. For those arrested in Belgium there may be information at the DG Oorlogsslachtoffers in Brussels.

If you know that your relation helped Allied airmen, you can try to find a “helper” file under your relation’s name at the American archives (NARA) or the British National Archives.

If your relation belonged to one of the Resistance groups that was officially recognized after the war, as Dutch-Paris was, you can also look for information about that group. But you need to know the official name of the group as it was known in 1945. If the group was rounded-up during the war and your relation was the sole survivor, however, you are not likely to find anything about that group. If the group worked in France you can look at the Service historique de la Défense at Vincennes or the Archives nationales, but try to find out if there are actually any files about it before going to France. In Belgium, you can look at CEGES/SOMA in Brussels. And in the Netherlands you can try NIOD.

If you know for sure that your relation belonged to Dutch-Paris, there is probably a file in the Weidner Collection. Unfortunately, those documents are currently inaccessible because they are being transferred to the Hoover Archives in California.

There may be other sources, of course, such as the war diary of your cousin’s best friend or a local archive where someone did a lot of interviews. The Archives départementales de la Rhône, for instance, has an especially impressive WWII collection, but it won’t help you unless your relative was arrested in Lyon or its region.

Many of these archives now have on-line catalogs, although some of them require that you come and look through the card catalog yourself. I recommend first finding out as much as you can through the archive’s website. You can then apply for permission to see any documents, if necessary, and even order particular documents for a particular day. It could take weeks or even months of preparation before actually reading a relevant document. But what a thrill when you finally find enough pieces of the puzzle to figure out what really happened during the war.

Good luck finding the resister in your family tree.